Editor’s note: Geoffrey Woo and Michael Brandt are cofounders of Nootrobox, an e-commerce nootropics company.
Nootropics, more colloquially known as “smart drugs,” are in the zeitgeist. Hollywood productions like Limitless and Lucy to a CNN profile of a quirky tech millionaire spending $300,000 to hack his own body with research chemicals have certainly raised the profile of nootropics in the mainstream.
But this isn’t a new phenomenon. Substantial pseudo-underground communities like Longecity.org and Reddit’s nootropic subreddit with almost 50,000 subscribers have served as the water cooler for adventurous biohackers to trade war stories on sourcing esoteric chemicals and compounds and running self-medication experiments with a sample size of 1. It all sounds a bit crazy, but it reminds us of the Homebrew computer club with its own rich history of colorful characters. Fundamentally, there’s some real science and innovation driving this interest.
Michael Pollan this week wrote a piece in the New Yorker about psilocybin, a psychedelic, and its promising results in treating anxiety, addiction (to smoking and alcohol) and depression. Piracetam, Noopept, Modafinil, Adderall, caffeine, THC – these have all been discovered or invented to help people gain control of their psyche, and do indeed work when used in specific doses for specific ailments (under the direction of a medical doctor).
To provide a broader context, let’s zoom the lens further back out in history. Humans have a long history of supplementation, and more generally, we have a long history of utilizing a broad set of tools to advance our capabilities. Tenth century tribal Ethiopians would mix coffee beans in lard to improve stamina during long hunts, and 15th century Incan warriors chewed coca leaves (which extracts are the basis for cocaine) before battle. Physical supplements have become ubiquitous in the 20th century. From taking protein powder to ingesting hormones and steroids, modern athletes have sought to gain an edge in competition.
Thus, the myth of the pure human is just that, a myth. Our ability and drive to improve our processing and manipulation of the world is what makes us human. Cognition is just the next frontier. In a seminal 2008 piece in Nature, a group of policy and health experts from Stanford, Harvard, University of Manchester, and Cambridge wrote: “We should welcome new methods of improving our brain function… Cognitive enhancement has much to offer individuals and society, and a proper societal response will involve making enhancements available while managing their risks.”
Projecting forward, we think the next natural step is that nootropics will be mainstream. They’ll be found in your local corner store next to Red Bull and next to your office espresso machine. Silicon Valley, as the spearhead of this movement, and society at large will have to come together and decide what this industry will look like. The recent massive recall of supplements from major brands like GNC in New York State reminds us that safety and regulation matter.
As operators in the space, we deeply understand the loose regulatory and oversight framework that the FDA provides for dietary supplements and unregulated research chemicals. Furthermore, while many nootropics currently in vogue show promise when used in a controlled environment under guidance of a physician, they were never intended for everyday use by healthy adults. Perhaps the worst culprit is Adderall, where one in four college students have used it for cramming.
College administrators across the nation are scrambling to educate and counsel students about the Schedule II drug, meaning it has “a high potential for abuse … with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence.” The Onion, perhaps the bellwether of our times, even published the headline Adderall Receives Honorary Degree from Harvard.
As technology leaders like Google have clung to core principles like “don’t be evil,” the growing nootropics industry will have to do the same. In fact, the stakes are even higher as ingesting something is one of the most intimate things one can do with their body. As government regulators tend to be a few steps behind on the latest innovation, it’ll really be up to the operators in this space and the community at large to step up in the interim and ensure that business is done right.
While the industry is in its early stage, the future is bright. Imagine a world where nootropics are widely available, well-understood, and publicly accepted. We’re not talking about Limitless where Bradley Cooper takes a super drug and gets unique mental prowess. Imagine a full society of Bradley Coopers. Intelligence is a network effect, and imagine the new forms of interaction, social relationships and productivity that we don’t yet comprehend.